Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) lives a mundane existence as a building handyman. Cold and blunt, he works all day and drinks all night, isolating himself into a bubble. When his brother (Kyle Chandler) dies, Lee is asked to take custody of the man’s son (Lucas Hedges).
Affleck plays Lee bristly, but not icy. In an extended conversation sequence in a hospital following his brother’s death, Lee reacts with a distinct lack of reaction, his rough shell preventing him from breaking down. Even if one finds his character’s distancing hard to sympathize with, flashbacks establish a rich character history worth investing in, and the construction of this character is deliberate to play with audience sympathy.
Kenneth Lonergan’s film is a series of mundane and awkward events contained within a life-altering state change. There is a humanness to the lack of refinement that this combination creates in the narrative. Temporal cross-cutting effectively delays plot points and backstory until the perfect moment, weaving a character study that is devastating in its lack of compromise.
Lee is not always a good man. His flaws lessen his status as our protagonist. The film allows the viewer to both criticize and feel sympathy for Lee, sometimes all in the same scene, as in one heartbreaking scene in a police station.
Manchester by the Sea feels real. Not only because of its narrative of family and loss and fragile humanity, but also because Lonergan adds flourishes of banality that supplement the drama (and comedy) of scenes. Minor everyday struggles like forgetting where one parks their car adds a layer of reality that becomes part of plot points and diffuses the fact that the film is a fictional story created within a capitalist industry.
With this film Casey Affleck defines his career, and Hedges begins a promising one. The pair are simply incredible together, steering the story as it unfolds. And certain scenes that highlight Affleck are awe-inspiring.
Manchester by the Sea is a multi-faceted look at a slice of the human condition. Standing at the intersection where bitter stoicism meets a need for emotional catharsis, the film takes a simple story and elevates it to something much more by leaving space for interpretation in the silence between lines of dialogue. With its refreshing approach to screenwriting and its powerful lead performances, Manchester by the Sea is simply not to be missed.
Manchester by the Sea: A
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)